Romney's Fenway Fib

Earlier this week Red Sox season-ticket holder Mitt Romney gave a national network interview at Fenway Park. This led someone to bring to my attention that Romney, who was governor at the time, was there at Fenway Park for the historic championship-clinching Game 4 of the 2004 World Series. Or at least, he told an Air Force pilot he was:

When he told me he was Massachusett's governor, I politely asked him to leave the flight deck, declaring the cockpit off limits to all Red Sox fans. He laughed and made a few cracks my way, regarding the Yanks, and we hit it off pretty well. I asked him if he was at Fenway when the Sox finally won the World Series, and with a huge boyish grin he replied, "Yes I was." 

No, he wasn't. I could go to a lot of trouble proving to you that Romney was actually in New Hampshire campaigning for George W. Bush that day, but it doesn't really matter because -- as every New Englander has been screaming while reading this post -- Game 4 was played at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Missouri.

I will leave it to others to decide for themselves how grievous an offense it is to misrepresent your presence at what was, inarguably, the single greatest moment the Commonwealth experienced during his four years as governor. I mean, sure, every single one of his constituents at the time can tell you, until their dying breath, exactly where they were at that glorious moment. But I'm not looking to judge.

I do want to use this anecdote to explain something about Mitt Romney's long history of untruthfulness: that it must be understood as at least two distinct types of lies.

One is what I think of as the "branding" lie -- the carefully crafted, deliberate fabrication designed to enhance the image of the product known as "Mitt Romney."

The other, which includes the one to the Air Force pilot, is what I would call the "Zelig" lie. If you haven't seen the brilliant Woody Allen film, Zelig is so desperate to fit in, he physically transforms to match the people he is around at a given time.

Romney is helplessly addicted to this type of lying, often trivial, sometimes not. I've witnessed it myself many times, and former Romney aides have expressed their frustration about it to me. Ryan Lizza captured it nicely in a great 2007 New Yorker profile:

Suddenly, a heavyset man wearing a bright-orange cap entered the room. “Mr. Romney,” he called out. “Eric Orff—I’m a hunter.” It was a potentially awkward moment. Earlier this year, Romney claimed that he’d “been a hunter pretty much all my life.” A few days later, he said in a statement, “I’ve hunted small game numerous times.” Four days after that, Romney told W. Gardner Selby, of the Austin American-Statesman, “Any description of my being a hunter is an overstatement of capability.”

Still, he couldn’t resist. “You’re a hunter?” he said to Orff. “Well, same here. Good to see ya.”

....Romney’s most seemingly innocuous comments can be head-scratchers.

The same compulsion, incidentally, is what also prompts Romney to make remarks of the "but I have some friends who are NASCAR team owners" type, that unnecessarily betray his elitism. Lizza noticed this tic as well, which he attributes to hyper-competitive one-upmanship.

After a voter at the New Hampshire diner told Romney, “My daughter goes to Michigan State,” he replied, “Oh, does she, really? My brother’s on the board of Michigan State.” When another patron said that she was from Illinois, Romney told her, “I won the straw poll at the Illinois Republican convention!”

I think Lizza has it wrong; Romney desperately wants to show the person he fits in with them, and grasps for whatever he has to connect with, not even realizing that he's one-upping. And it's when his grasp for a factual connection comes up empty -- when he doesn't have, say, an actual brother on the Michigan State board -- that's when he's liable to grasp into fiction and make it up.

The problem has rarely caused trouble for him in the past, because people weren't normally recording every word he said, and because these fiblets don't usually stand out in a way that sends somebody running to fact-check. (My guess is that the "my father marched with MLK Jr." lie started out that way, and he ended up repeating it until he said it in too prominent a setting and someone -- me -- finally decided to check on it.)

But of course now everyone's following Romney around looking for ways that his current words don't match up with past realities, so he has to try really hard to curb this tendency -- which I'm almost certain is why he adopted the bizarre conversational tics noted by travelling press during the primaries, of guessing everybody's age, weight, and/or ethicity. That may be weird and possibly offensive, but avoids the kind of exchanges where Romney feels compelled to do his Zelig thing. Or, his "Yes I was at Fenway for Game 4!" thing.

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